Miramax Begins Feature Film Downloads on Internet

On Monday, January 22, Miramax Films will begin an experiment in downloading full-length features over the Internet. Claiming that it wants to "fight fire with fire" against the proliferation of free movies, Miramax will make its 1999 release Guinevere available as a download for a $3.49 fee with a 24-hour viewing limit.

A unit of the Walt Disney Company, Miramax hopes to short-circuit the development of file-sharing programs similar to Napster that would let movie fans share their favorites over the Internet. The studios succeeded last year in defeating Scour.com, a startup that enabled film fans to do just that. The incident jolted the industry into a new awareness of the Internet's potential, and last spring, Miramax signed a deal with SightSound.com to distribute twelve features over the Net. Guinevere is the first; the 500MB file will take about 30 minutes to download with a broadband connection.

The highly compressed file will be encrypted by SightSound.com and will self-destruct after 24 hours. Pennsylvania-based SightSound.com has several commercial films already available, including one specifically made for the Internet. Guinevere will be viewable in "near-DVD" quality on receiving computers, but will not play if stored on a CD-R, according to SightSound.com CEO Scott Sander.

The download program is part of a larger experiment within the film industry to determine how the Internet can best be employed for distributing its products. Although Internet film sites like Ifilm.com are still in operation, ambitious plans by major studios to begin developing short films for the Internet have mostly been scaled back. Pop.com, a much-publicized joint venture between Imagine Entertainment and DreamWorks, was scuttled last year. Sony Pictures Entertainment and Blockbuster Video both have plans to put films on the Net. Blockbuster is teaming with Enron to offer MGM movies from a central server computer in a video-on-demand experiment.

Although it is clear that the Internet will play an important role in the distribution of motion pictures, what that role will be certainly isn't clear at this point. Unexplained in Miramax's announcement is why the studio thinks movie fans would be willing to download a one-day-only less-than-DVD-quality version of a film when they can rent the disc for three days for less than the cost of the download.